Most believers of any persuasion view their own religious beliefs as normal, reasonable, and sensible, while looking at any other religious belief – whether modern or ancient – as strange, alien, and outrageous. Rarely are people able or willing to detach themselves long enough from their own religious beliefs to view their beliefs through an unbiased lens. In religious discussions, I have frequently heard non-believers and skeptics point this out to believers. It usually goes something like this:
Christian: How can you atheists not understand that there is something greater out there, something bigger than yourself? How can you not see that Jesus was the way God redeemed humanity?
Skeptic: I am an atheist and you are a Christian, yet despite the countless religions in the world, we both agree on the silliness of 99% of them. I view Christianity the same way you view Hinduism, Scientology, or Paganism – as mystical mumbo-jumbo. You aren’t able to see that Christianity is the same as all the rest.
Recently, I have been studying scholarly accounts of the early days of Christianity, looking at the texts of the New Testament, as well as non-biblical Christian texts from the first few centuries after Jesus’ death – texts that, for the most part, have a fundamentally different interpretation of the meaning of the life of Jesus. Most of the theology in these non-biblical texts falls under the general category of “Gnosticism,” but like Christianity in the modern world – which has dozens and dozens of various incarnations (Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc.) – Gnosticism had many different faces as well. However, like all the various mainstream Christian denominations, which generally agree on the basic tenets of the faith, the various ancient Gnostic groups generally agreed on basic Christian principles as well – principles that differ quite starkly from those held by most Christians in the modern world.
If I described the basic tenets of Christian Gnosticism to a traditional believer, he or she would probably think it sounded absolutely silly. And yet, when you look at the basic theology of Orthodox (that is, traditional) Christianity, and the basic theology of Gnostic Christianity, they differ greatly, but they are both equally abstract and, frankly, outrageous to post-modern sensibilities.
In an effort to demonstrate this, I will attempt to illustrate both views in their barest forms, stripped of familiar language and images, so that the average reader and believer can see exactly what I’m talking about.
Christian Gnostic theology, as I understand it, goes something like this:
The world is depraved. The world has always been depraved. The world’s very nature is depravity. The world was created by God. When God created the world, he believed he was the supreme God of the universe. But he was mistaken. He is a lesser God, so his world and his creation is depraved and completely detached from the ideals of the true God of the universe. Human beings, as part of the material world of the lesser God, are depraved. Human souls – the divine sparks – come from the true God of the universe, and are trapped in human bodies on this depraved world, alienated from God. Every time a new human is born, the process begins again. Women, whose function is to procreate, must become like men and destroy the procreative process. Human beings must not procreate.
When a person comes to understand all this, and to realize that the soul’s true place is in the abode of the true God of the universe, and to recognize that enlightenment lies in knowing one’s self and understanding one’s true nature, then a person can start on the path of salvation. This path includes rejecting all aspects of the material world, and not yielding to desires of the flesh. Eternal life is not a material existence but a nonmaterial existence. Sin does not exist, as the world’s very nature is depravity. Redemption of the material world is impossible. Instead, the dissolution of the material world and restoration of the soul to the abode of the true God of the universe is the ultimate goal.
Jesus was a human being who was in touch with his own true nature. He imparted what he knew through secret knowledge to his followers so that they could understand the true path to salvation and restoration of their souls to God.
Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, goes like this:
The world is fallen and depraved. The one true God of the universe created the world, and it was perfect and paradisal, but sin came into the world as disobedience to God, embodied by Satan, and everything changed.
Human beings are now slaves to sin, at the mercy of sin’s power, unable to redeem themselves. Salvation comes through admitting one’s powerlessness to sin. Eternal life is a material existence. God will redeem the world and return it to its paradisal origins. Sin will be eliminated, and humans will be able to live in the material world as God originally intended, enjoying all the material benefits of life in God’s paradisal kingdom.
Jesus was God’s divine son, sent to earth in order to die and be resurrected, and through his resurrection to offer redemption for human beings enslaved to sin, so that they might take part in God’s coming kingdom.
When you look at them in this stripped down, bare bones way, they both seem rather fanciful, strange, and mystical. Both are simply attempts by human beings to explain and understand humanity’s place in the universe, humanity’s relationship to God, and to explain the meaning of the life and death of Jesus.
Yet one of these strange and mystical philosophies is now the basis of the faith of two billion people in the modern world, and the other strange and mystical philosophy was systematically destroyed and wiped out 1700 years ago.
Are either one of them accurate? Maybe. Maybe not. But apart from the insistence of the human institution of the Church, do we have any logical reason to give credence to either of them as the ultimate explanation for the meaning of life?